Al Capone is perhaps the best known gangster in American history. He’s been the subject of many films and portrayed by a whole host of celebrated actors; perhaps most famously by Paul Muni in Scarface and by Robert De Niro in The Untouchables. But he’s never been depicted as he is in Josh Trank’s downbeat film.
Capone is set in the dog days, towards the end of the gangster’s life. ‘Fonse’ has recently been released from prison and is suffering horribly from the neuro syphilis that has plagued him since his teens. Locked up in a palatial mansion somewhere in Florida, with devoted wife Mae (Linda Cardellini) at his side, and with regular visits from Doctor Karlock (Kyle MacLachlan), he regularly falls prey to vivid hallucinations that take him back to revisit experiences from his bloody hey day – from visits to booze-fuelled jazz clubs to crawling across heaps of bloodied bodies after a massacre he’s orchestrated.
Fonse no longer knows what is real and what is illusion and, unfortunately, this also extends to viewers of the film. While it might sound like a promising conceit on paper, it’s actually infuriating, particularly when the screenplay (also by Trank) refuses to stick to any kind of internal logic. I’m fine when I’m seeing odd happenings from Capone’s point of view, but what about when they are apparently witnessed by some of the other characters in the story? Is Capone’s old pal Johnny (Matt Dillon) actually still alive or just a vivid memory from the past? And who is the mysterious kid who keeps phoning Fonse from Cleveland? While I don’t insist that every loose end needs to be tied up, too much here is simply left hanging.
Hardy is generally a gifted performer but he’s saddled here with a thankless central role that offers him little chance to shine. Swaddled in some pretty unconvincing makeup, with a cigar (or a carrot) clenched relentlessly between his teeth, his dialogue is rarely more than a series of grunts and incoherent curses. He’s actually more eloquent when he’s noisily filling one of the oversized nappies he’s forced to wear, after suffering a few malodorous accidents in bed. Also… his constantly stoned expression makes him look a dead ringer for a grumpier version of Bernard Bresslaw from the ‘Carry On’ films.
The film’s one hour and forty-seven minutes’ duration consequently unfolds at a funereal pace, with very little in the way of progression. I feel rather like I am stuck in a traffic jam, trying to figure out what little I can see through the windscreen, and constantly wondering when I might be moving onwards again. I stick with it to the bitter end, but really have to force myself.
There’s probably a fascinating film to be made about the end of Capone’s life but, sadly, this isn’t it. Josh Trank probably had a coherent vision for his film; somehow it’s been lost in the mix.